Music on the menu at Issaquah violin shop
April 5, 2011
By Laura Geggel
Folk artists turn lunchtime into impromptu jam sessions
Most Tuesdays, the musical employees at Hammond Ashley Violins in Issaquah won’t be found working through lunch, nor will they be spotted eating out about town.
The motley group plays impromptu tunes together in the workroom where the luthiers mend and make instruments for their customers. Many in the group have played together for decades, back when the store was located south of Seattle in Des Moines.
When Hammond Ashley moved to Issaquah in 2006, the group continued to play, led by its leader in both age and musical wherewithal, 82-year-old Abel Fortune.
“I started fooling with harmonicas when I was about 5 years old,” Fortune said. “I don’t know how many years it was before I could admit I could play a tune.”
His father introduced him to music, and Fortune keeps all sorts of paternal reminders, including the harmonica holder his father gave him on his 16th birthday.
He loved listening to his father play dance music on the fiddle, and as Fortune grew older, he joined a group and began playing for crowds. He met his wife when playing as a busker at Pike Place Market, and soon the two married; he playing accordion and harmonica and she made melodies on her hammer dulcimer and Irish drum.
His wife died after 27 years of marriage. Fortune continued working as a luthier — a woodworker who repairs instruments — at Hammond Ashley Violins, playing once a week during his lunch hour with his coworkers.
“I’ve never played folk music before. I just like playing with Abel,” bass player Matthew Corcoran said. “It’s kind of inspiring.”
Fortune’s colleagues hold him in their high esteem, but they still rib him between grins and laughter.
“Abel has written a bunch of songs,” Joe Cable, a guitarist, said.
“I do some tunes,” Fortune admitted. But, “I don’t write, I compose.”
“For him to write it, it would have to be written down,” guitarist Scott Marshall joked.
Fortune shushed them by settling down on his chair, accordion in lap and harmonica at his lips, and announcing he was going to play “Bull Thistle.”
“A bull thistle is the most impressive of all thistle plants,” Fortune said. “It’s got the worst stickers.”
Just as Marshall said, the song they started playing had no sheet music. They all knew it by heart, and took their lead from Fortune, letting a solo leap from instrument to instrument as each musician took the lead during part of the song.
“You play together and pretty soon you learn the tune,” violinist Rick Wiklund said.
The luthiers played one folk tune after another with titles including “The Irish Rover,” “Liberty” and “Redwing,” all compositions of Fortune.
Though their group doesn’t have a name, they were full of ideas: Hammond Ashley Lunch Hour, Out to Lunch, and Abel and the Enablers all got approving hoots.
Fortune didn’t give much mind to the name. He just wanted to play folk music, “the type of music people play because they have a need to play it, an inside need to play it,” he said.
Not everyone in the group is a luthier with a beard. Hammond Ashley Violins Sue Lawrence joined the group to play her viola. Even after playing with the group for several years, she still gets a kick out of watching Fortune play the accordion and harmonica simultaneously.
“I have not seen a squeezebox along with a harmonica being played at the same time,” she said. “I’m out front as a sales associate, so it’s fun to come back here and see what the hams are doing, the Hammond Ashley men.”
The luthiers at Hammond Ashley Violins continue to share their verve for music by playing their lunch hour away, week after week. Anyone is welcome to join or listen, and “it’s a lot easier to get through the door with a fiddle,” Scott Marshall said.
“I think it’s great,” Assistant Manager Matt Hopper said. “It’s a way for the shop to come together and get away from the busy work we do, clear our heads and enjoy the music.”